Thursday, June 30, 2011

Vocal Recording 101: Psychology

Ok...This will be an amalgamation of a number of posts and tweets regarding vocal recording. It’s an important subject as most of the music we make will have a lead vocal. So if we’re going to make compelling music, we need to know how to work with singers and help them give a great performance.

The first thing to remember is what said in Recording Tip #56. When producing vocals always remember singers are not players. They are a different breed by nature
Argue this with me if you want or say why it shouldn’t be that way. But I’ve had decades of experience recording singers and the fact is very few approach their craft the way a player does. It’s not a right or wrong thing. It’s no different than the generalization of facts that men and woman are different. There are exceptions with all things and of course there is with this. But the point I’m driving at is that if you’re a player producing a singer, you need to think about how you speak with them when recording.

For example, tell a player, “You’re a bit flat there” and it’s no big deal. They’ll get their tuner out and be done. But the same words to a singers can sometimes be devastating. Even though singing out of tune is really a technical matter, when some singers are told there’s a pitch problem all they hear is, “I think you suck.” And when that happens the mind games set in. And that can make it tough to get a great take that day, or sometimes for many days. If they’re singing out of tune of course you must deal with it. So how do you know what to say?

When you’re beginning to work with a singer you need to develop trust. They may be one who can easily get into the nitty-gritty of punching lines or words after you make a comment, or they may not. You don’t know till you’re down the path a bit. So go easy at first and see how they respond to your comments. One good thing to do is to make two positive comments before you say a negative one. Find two specific words of phrases that are the best in the take, tell them you liked it and why. If there was a bad line or word say, “Hey there was only one spot that wasn’t as great as the rest of the verse” or something like that. The LISTEN and WATCH CAREFULLY to their reaction. You’ll learn quickly how they respond to your suggestions, and which of your suggestions get the best results.

Sometime you may come across a singers carrying a lot of negative baggage from their last project. That can be tough. Maybe their last producer was verbally cruel, mocking or even abusive. It could be they were in a band of buffoons who bullied their singers. These kinds of things happen. You don’t need to be paranoid, but as you begin your relationship with an artist ask them about past producers and such..what was good, what wasn’t. And pay close attention to what they say, verbally or well as what they don’t say.

Confidence is everything in a great vocal. And to get one, you as a producer need to have great communication skills and know speak to those you’re producing. Any amount of correction or guidance needs to be spoken in a way where they don’t feel they’re failing. Speak their language and create an environment where they can feel feel safe and encouraged with each take. They need to feel free to attempt things and if it’s not great, it’s no big deal.

Last thing to remember is Recording tip #57 and 58. ALWAYS be in record and ALWAYS keep the first pass! There is often magic there. But even if it really sucks, keep it anyway and tell them, “Hey...that had a great vibe. I know you’re still searching. But I liked the emotion of it.”

Musical performances are hugely psychological. If you singer feels safe, confident that you love what they do (never work with an artist you don’t love) and that you’re there for them and you’ll get a great delivery. Make sure they know why you show up. You’re there to help them find a performance that is stellar.

So at least for me, these are some keys to psychological connections in producing a vocal. In the next post I’ll discuss some technical things, but if you’ve not set a good vibe for your artist the technical parts won’t mean much. Better a great emotional vocal with technical problems than a pristine recorded vocal with no emotion.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Recording Tip 25: Don’t try to make the loudest mix. Let mastering raise the levels

This is always a battle when I’m mixing a few songs in an album instead of the entire thing. It’s especially true if I know there’s another mixer who always slams the compressor hard and makes very loud mixes. When mixes are being compared before mastering levels them out, there’s the fear my mixes will sound wimpy by comparison. Of course the style of the album comes into play here. If mixing a rock or dance album which typically has little dynamics you probably will want to make your mixes fit well in that format. One thing I always do before I begin is to find out who will be mastering the album. If I know the mastering engineer and have worked with them in the past, it makes my life easier as I know how my mixes translate to what he’ll do.

But you have to mix in the way that's best for your skills. It's easy to make a loud mix. Anybody can crank a limiter and squash the life out of a mix. But what we need to to is make a great mix, loud or not. One of the most fundamental jobs of a mastering engineer is to make the levels between the songs consistent. Let them handle that.

Which brings me to another often as you can, attend the mastering sessions, even if you’re only mixing a single song. Find out when it’s likely they’ll get to your mix and show up then. I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned about mixing, and the process of what’s done to my work by attending mastering sessions. It’s the only time your work is really judged and you have a chance to talk to the engineer and get feedback. Ask them hard questions. Be ready to hear bad news on occasion and take it to heart. Those are the moments you can really learn and improve. Some engineers may give you a nice word right off the bat, but don’t let it sit there. Let them know you really want to hear their comments so you can improve your skills.

Recording Tip 24: Many of the greatest mix engineers always recommend adjusting EQ without soloing. Any idea why?

This is one of those rather obvious questions, but is one that bears remembering even by yours truly. The clear fact is that any eq adjustment must only be based on how it relates to the big picture of the mix. It’s tempting to solo whenever you get deep into working on a particular sound, and there’s nothing really wrong with that when you need to get after a particular bit of a track. However I recommend to do it only when you can’t quite hear what it is that’s going on. Sometimes there’s a particular resonance that’s bugging you and if you can’t hear it, then sure...go ahead and solo it.

Here's a great tip in such cases; Select a narrow Q and turn up the gain and sweep the frequencies to find the resonance that’s not working. Once you find it, then duck at that frequency, experimenting with the Q to see how wide it needs to be. That’s useful especially for snare drums which have a tone which isn’t helpful. Sometimes a note in the drum is great, but sometimes it can be in the wrong key for the song, so then you really need to duck it.

So try to resist the urge to solo right off the bat. Work at it for a while while in the track, then solo if you must. Just make sure you don’t get in the bad habit of soloing every track when you need to eq.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Recording Tip 23: When using multiple mics, always check phase

This is a basic skill of engineering which I was taught early on. But in today’s world where many people begin recording at home, while it’s likely that some of you have heard of it, you may have no idea why you do it, or even what it means.

The reason for it is rather simple, but may sound complex. When you think of it, it makes total sense. Every sound has a positive pressure wave created. The drum, guitar, voice, whatever, makes a sound and the air molecules move from that sound source out into space. When a single microphone is struck by those moving air molecules, it’s converted to an electrical signal which goes to the mic preamp and into whatever interface you use for recording. Assuming all of your wiring is correct, it will then go thru that chain and come out your speakers with a positive push from your speakers. (The speaker moves toward you) So with one mic, all is well, generally speaking. (I’ll address this more in Recording tip #28 for when that might not be the case)

So again, assuming all is well with one mic, you’re fine. But if you use more than one mic you need to check for phase consistency. Why is that? The most obvious example for this is when you record drums. Here you typically have overhead mics, and mics on the toms, snare, high hat, and kick drum. When the drummer strikes the snare or toms, the pressure wave moves from the drum into the air, captured by the close mic as well as the overhead mics. Now hopefully all of the mics, the mic cables and preamps are all wired alike. Most times that will be the case. However, even if it is the case it’s possible to have the distant mics in such a position where they’re not capturing the pressure wave in the same cycle as the close mics. If that’s the case, when they are added together in the mix, you’ll find that certain frequencies will be cancelled to some degree. And if your cables or the mics themselves are wired wrong, this cancellation will happen as well.

The technical reason is this. Remember the sine wave graph from your math classes? From it’s beginning the waveform moves up into a positive form, then down to the negative part of the waveform and then back up. In a perfect scenario the sound pressure waves created when the drummer hits the snare or tom will be in alignment in both mics. But it’s possible that with the placement of the mics relative to one another, that might not happen. With one mic the waveform begins moving up to a positive form, and the other catches the waveform moving down. When that happens part of the frequencies will cancel when combined.

That’s why you need to check phase. So let me walk you thru my method for checking phase when recording drums.

Everyone begins drum sounds differently. George Massenburg begins with the overheads and I do as well. I’ll ask the drummer play a basic groove; kick, snare, high hat. I’ll listen to the overheads and make sure they’re in phase. Now with experience you can tell if the overheads alone are in phase. But if you’re not sure, try flipping the phase of the overheads. When they are in phase you should get a solid center position of the snare drum between the speakers. ( Huge assumption here....I assume your speakers are in phase with each need to have that right, but I’ll not get into that here.) Anyway, when I hear the overheads are good, I’ll mute them, and then go to the kick drum. Once I have a basic eq, I’ll then turn on the snare mic and listen with the overheads. But before I eq the snare I flip the phase button back and forth. When I hear a deeper sound of the snare that’s correct phase relationship. The same is true of the tom mics. I’ll have the drummer hit each drum and check phase before I begin to eq. To begin to eq before you check phase could make you backtrack because the change of phase will have a huge impact on how they sound, especially on the bottom end. That’s because the frequencies which are most affected by phase are the lower frequencies. Those frequencies will cancel more readily than others. What about checking phase with the kick drum mic? I will do that. But more times than not they don’t have those problems. However, if things aren’t sounding right, I’ll check that as well. As for the high hat, due to the high frequencies of the high hat, it’s in my experience never an issue. (Ok...yeah...never say never...but you get my drift)

Here’s a good tip in checking phase. When checking phase a good thing to do is to put the signals to mono. It can be easier, especially if you have tom mics panned hard left and right, to hear phase issues when in mono. Also, play with the balance between the snare, tom or whatever. If the close mic is too loud, you’ll not hear the potential phase issues.

By the way, an interesting thing to do after the drum have been recorded is to zoom in to sample level and compare waveforms of the close mics verses the overheads. You’ll clearly see that the waveform of the close mics are ahead in time as compared to the overhead mics. Some folks will move the overheads files so they’re in the same time as the close mics. I don’t advocate that. To me, that delay is a part of what creates the sound of a drum kit. We never could it in the analog days and arguably the best sounding records came from that era. So I don’t go down that rabbit hole. The same is true of some guys who do orchestra recordings. Some move the ambient mics in time to the close mics. I get that...but to me, that’s part of what makes things sound good. And as far as I’m aware, none of the best engineers in the business do that. And neither do I.

Now getting back to pop music...this phase issue is also true of recording guitars with multiple mics and especially a bass guitar when using a direct signal and an amp. The direct signal will get there first...pure physics. Most of the time you’ll not need to flip the phase of either. But you do check that. Sometimes it’s a clear 180 degree phase problem. Other times, it needs something in between. No matter which phase you pick, you hear some cancellation. If so, go move the mic on the amp. You need to find a place where the signals add in a positive way.

But if you get a mix where things don’t work with either in or out of phase, there are some solutions available. Littlelabs has a a plugin which is as far as I know, is only offered by Universal Audio. That plugin can move between the typical 180 degree phase shift. That can be a good solution if you have it. But if you don’t you can move the waveform of the mic. That’s the only situation where I will move a waveform and that’s to correct an error in the recording.

I hope this answers a bit of the mystery of phase issues. At times it can be a big deal. So be sure you check it out.

Recording Tip 22: In prepping the mix, don’t edit the tom-tom tracks. If the mixer wants that done, they can do it

This may be another tip to which some disagree. But in my own experience I’d rather have the tom tracks left alone. If the mixer wants that to be done, they can do it It doesn’t take that much time, and they can edit it the way they want. Personally I've had to re-edit more times than not! I know of many mixers who want that ringing and bleed to be there. Jack Joseph Puig, for one stated he’d rather have them un-edited tom tracks as he prefers the sound of the whole kit. So I recommend to give it to the engineer as is and they’ll make that choice.

Hopefully the drums were well recorded and there’s no need for this. But if you have a track which has real problems and you feel it's needed, make a playlist of them raw, and then carefully edit the tom tracks as an alternate. But for sure don’t edit and then consolidate the tracks so there’s no way to get it back. Only the mixer will know once they begins the mix if that raw track is what’s needed for the mix.